This Sukkot, Matan will celebrate its 30th anniversary

"I don’t believe how far we’ve gotten."

STUDENTS LEARN together in the Matan Beit Midrash (photo credit: Courtesy)
STUDENTS LEARN together in the Matan Beit Midrash
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I don’t believe how far we’ve gotten,” says Rabbanit Malke Bina, founder and chancellor of Matan: The Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies. Sitting in her office in the school’s Jerusalem headquarters, Bina smiles, and reflectively explains how a group of five women studying Talmud around a dining room table in 1988 has grown into one of Israel’s leading institutions for Torah study in Israel – with 11 branches throughout the country, 6,000 students attending classes weekly, and a burgeoning list of programs and initiatives.
On Thursday evening, October 17, the fourth day of Sukkot, Matan will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a gala dinner at the King David Hotel. Looking back 30 years, Bina says, “When we started, a women’s beit midrash [study hall] was almost an oxymoron. I can’t believe that in 30 years we started from not having a beit midrash, with no Talmud learning – hardly anything – and now women at Matan are writing piskei Halacha [decisions on Jewish law]. It’s mind-boggling.”
Today, Matan offers a broad and varied program of study on a variety of subjects including Bible, Talmud, Jewish law, customs and prayer. Students can choose classes according to their personal tastes and particular desires. In addition to their regular slate of classes, Matan’s beit midrash programs also offer a wide variety of intensive study in Talmud, Bible, hassidut and Jewish law. Of particular interest is Matan’s Hilchata program, a six-year, advanced program for halachic studies offered at the institute’s Jerusalem campus.
Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, a graduate of the Hilchata program, and one of the honorees at this year’s dinner, graduated from Hilchata’s first class this past June. The program is designed for women – many of whom already occupy scholarly positions within the Jewish community – who possess a very strong background in Talmud and Jewish law.
“These women wanted to complete their halachic education and get a more rounded background in Halacha,” says Fraenkel. “Over a six-year period, we studied the laws of kashrut, personal status, mourning, Shabbat and Yom Tov, and most of the major bodies of Halacha. We were taught by very prominent halachic authorities, and we were tested by rabbis both from within and outside the program.”
Fourteen women graduated from the elite program. Graduates receive a certificate attesting to their expertise in Jewish law, granting them the title of Meshivot Halacha, qualified respondents to questions of Jewish law.
“We are not in a fight over their title, to expend energy about what title they should get,” says Fraenkel. “Organically, within their communities and their workplaces, they receive questions. There are questions sent from long distances that are specifically directed to these women. The fact is that they are taking part in the leadership role in the Torah world.” Fraenkel, describing the program, smiles and says, “Hilchata utilizes the energy brought by Anglo-Saxon Israelis, but with an Israeli twist.” She emphasizes that the women in the program prepare their halachic responses under the supervision of their rabbis.

RABBANIT SURALE Rosen has been at Matan for 12 years, first as a student, and more recently as a teacher. Like Fraenkel, she studied Talmud at Matan’s Talmud Institute for three years before joining the Hilchata program. Rosen developed the idea of creating a section on Matan’s website where visitors could pose questions on Jewish law to Hilchata graduates.
Soon after, “Shayla, the Matan’s Women Online Responsa Project,” was born. Visitors to the site can read existing questions and answers that have been posted and can send their own questions. Questions range from technical halachic matters, such as issues regarding pregnancy and fasting on Tisha Be’av, to matters of custom. For example, a woman from a Yemenite background with a strong connection to her heritage who was marrying an Ashkenazi man with almost no connection to his family customs, asked whether she would be permitted to keep her own Yemenite customs after they wed.
“We just started the Shayla program,” says Bina. “I want to see it develop further, so that we can become a trusted name in women’s Halacha, responding to questions from all over the world. People will know that they can turn to our graduates and will get a responsible, full, thorough, halachic answer to their questions.”
Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash has been teaching at Matan for 10 years. Barash, who moved to Israel in 1991, and was one of Matan’s first students, was a member of its three-year Talmud program, and later studied for three years in the Hilchata program. Today, she teaches contemporary Halacha and rabbinic texts at Matan.
“Matan has given women a seat at the table,” she says. “It has been a privilege to be part of a significant change in allowing access to texts that were previously studied only by men.” Barash explains that at Matan, their deep respect for tradition and for the texts has not held back the unprecedented growth of female Torah scholarship.
A Thursday morning class at Matan before Rosh Hashanah was crowded with close to 50 women listening to Barash’s lecture about Elisha Ben Abuya, the famous Talmudic sage who turned away from observance. Barash skillfully discussed and compared various Talmudic stories about the sage and used modern commentaries to explain difficult passages. The women in attendance ranged in age from approximately 20 to 80. Some wore berets or straw hats, others were bareheaded. Discussing how she reads texts, Barash says, “I feel that the female voice is different. As a woman, in some ways, I have permission to read the text differently. If I were a man, I would have been raised from a young age in a very male environment, with a very male reading of texts that are male. Everything was viewed through the lens of the male sages. As a woman who comes in, I am hearing it differently.”

WHILE MATAN has raised its profile in Talmud studies, the institution remains justly famous for its Tanach (Hebrew Bible) programs, which feature many acclaimed scholars, including Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Dr. Yael Ziegler, Rabbanit Shani Taragin, and others. In addition, the school operates the Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute for Tanach and Jewish Studies, now in its fourth year, which trains female Jewish educators to become master teachers and leaders in Jewish schools in the Diaspora. The Institute is ideal for women starting their careers in Jewish education and for experienced teachers who want to enrich their knowledge and sharpen their skills.
“We felt that Israel has so much to offer in Tanach, and in the Diaspora, there is a dearth of Tanach educators,” says Bina. “Schools in the Diaspora are looking for high-level women who can teach a broader, in-depth study of Tanach and connect it to the Land of Israel.”
Rivi Frankel, administrative coordinator of the Eshkolot program, explains that the program enables educators to better understand how to engage and awaken their students to the joy of studying Tanach. Smiling, Frankel says, “We want to help them love Tanach in the same way that we do.”
Frankel, who is a licensed tour guide, studied in the program last year, and says, “One of the greatest things is the cohort of women themselves. There is a lot of strength of women empowerment where one student will say, ‘I just tried this technique with a group of students, and this didn’t work. Can you help me?’ We discuss the challenges, and there are many practical workshops.” Frankel added that the fact that Matan supports higher-level Tanach learning, and not only Talmud studies is important to her. “I didn’t see it anywhere else,” she says. “The Eshkolot program empowers women not just to learn Tanach, but to teach Tanach.”    
As Bina listens to these woman scholars describe the programs and classes at Matan, she marvels at what they are accomplishing. “When you see things happen beyond what you expected, and you see these women and what they are doing, it’s just amazing. I see the investment. There is something special that we give these women that they can grow into such fine scholars and educators and leaders in a sensitive way. It is very special.”
While Matan’s largest campus is in Jerusalem, the Matan HaSharon branch, headed by Rabbanit Oshra Koren, is the second largest Matan center in Israel. Koren, one of the alumnae honorees at Matan’s upcoming dinner, was the first beit midrash student at Matan, and created the highly successful Matan Bat Mitzvah program, which includes experiential learning sessions for mothers and daughters that focus on the image and actions of Jewish women throughout the generations. The Bat Mitzvah program is offered at many Matan branches in Israel, as well as in the United States, Mexico and France. Other Matan branches in Israel are located in Beit Shemesh, Hashmonaim, Rehovot, Beersheba, Netanya, Zichron Ya’acov, the Shomron, Petah Tikva, and Modi’in. 
In addition to the adult programs that Matan provides, the school now offers a gap-year program in conjunction with Bnei Akiva for post-high school students, called Midreshet Torah v’Avodah. Now in its sixth year, and meeting in Matan Jerusalem, it introduces gap-year students to a women’s beit midrash, started by women, and taught largely by women. Nechama Barash, who teaches in both programs, says Midreshet Torah v’Avodah “brought in a dynamism, and infused the place with energy. The older women have a lot of wisdom, and it brings together youthful energy with the wisdom of the older students.”
While the institution’s name – Matan – is an acronym for Machon Torani Nashim (Women’s Torah Institute), Bina also likens it to the Hebrew word matanah meaning gift. For its current students and alumnae, Matan has provided them with the gift of Torah learning and understanding. Surale Rosen says, “My adult journey in the world of Torah is rooted here in the Matan beit midrash.” Adds Nechama Barash, “Matan is reflective of women’s Torah study in Israel. It is enormously empowering.”
What are Matan’s future plans? Bina says that she would like to add another 10-15 branches in the next 10 years. Explaining Matan’s mission, she says simply, “We want to learn Torah. We feel that Torah is vital to our lives, and we as women want to be part of the whole story.” A sign at the edge of Bina’s desk reads, “Good ideas start with a good coffee.” Good ideas are indeed brewing at Matan.